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Insider

Marcus Lee a key recruit for Kentucky

10/19/2012

The assembly line that is Kentucky basketball recruiting is humming along at a pace foreign to most college basketball programs.

John Calipari had one commitment when the month began: power forward Derek Willis.

Now he has five. And we’re not just talking any old recruits. With four top-30 commitments in the past 14 days -- No. 2 Andrew Harrison, No. 4 Aaron Harrison, No. 5 James Young and now No. 28 Marcus Lee -- Kentucky continues to build on a historically great recruiting class.

That’s the equivalent of taking a Ferrari, dropping the hammer and cranking it up to 170 mph. It’s fast, it’s fun and it’s what you’d expect from a high-performance program.

Though not as high profile as the top-five pledges of the Harrison twins and Young in recent weeks, the Wildcats’ addition on Wednesday of Lee, a 6-foot-9 power forward out of Antioch, Calif., is significant on a number of fronts -- starting with the UK frontcourt.

Since Calipari arrived in 2009, he has always set his sights on a rim protector. Good teams have big guys; great ones have impact defensive players. Kentucky has had a plethora of bigs, to the point that a guy like Daniel Orton had minimal impact for the Wildcats but was drafted in the first round anyway.

Lee has several attributes from a basketball standpoint that are significant.

First and foremost he can guard the rim. He has excellent bounce, plenty of length and athletic ability to die for. The guy runs the floor like a gazelle, and he’s only going to get better. Guys tend to play hard for Calipari, and harnessing Lee’s raw potential is next up on the docket.

Potential, upside -- whatever you want to call it, Lee is laced with it. This is a kid whose body could explode under the tutelage of a strength-and-conditioning coach. He has the physical attributes that will excite pro teams down the road. With reasonable development and controlled expectations, Lee has strong projections.

He’s tracking as a multiyear player, and that’s not a bad thing. Orton should have stayed, and current 7-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein likely will have a decision to make after this season.

And that brings up the next reason for Lee’s importance: depth. If the Wildcats lose Cauley-Stein, then they have their next guardian of the rim. If he stays, Lee gets to ease into the position. It’s as perfect a situation as Calipari could have asked for at the position.

Another reason for excitement over Lee is insurance. UK is involved with plenty of good power forwards; No. 3 overall recruit Julius Randle of Dallas and No. 6 prospect Aaron Gordon of San Jose, Calif., top the list. History leads us to conclude that UK likely will get one of them, but what if the Wildcats whiff? Having Lee committed takes away some of the sting of a miss.

There’s also no guarantee that freshman forward Alex Poythress and Cauley-Stein will leave early. Freshman center Nerlens Noel, however, likely will project too high, and history says Cal usually tells those guys to go pro. Still, at this point, all options remain on the table.

If Noel goes pro and the others stay, it’s conceivable UK could have a front line in 2013-14 of Kyle Wiltjer, Poythress, Cauley-Stein and Lee with Willis as a role player. Not too shabby. Mix in Gordon or Randle and it’s curtains trying to match up with those Cats. That’s probably the high end of the probability meter, but it could happen.

Finally, Lee’s pledge keeps everyone on the West Coast on alert. Calipari has successfully gone to the left in 2010 when he beat Washington for Terrence Jones, in 2011 when he nabbed Wiltjer from Gonzaga and California, and now in 2013 when he roared into the Golden Bears’ backyard once again.

Every year since 2010, Cal has recruited at least one West Coaster. Last year he took a huge cut at Shabazz Muhammad and medaled but didn’t get the gold. Keeping a West Coast presence is wise, and UK certainly has one that it continues to cultivate.